“We are the grandchildren of the Indians you were not able to remove,” so goes a popular social media meme.
It is true, of course. Although the Trail of Tears was without a doubt one of the worst crimes against humanity ever committed by the United States, it was not nearly as effective as many had hoped.
While thousands did indeed die in the removal forts and on the journey west, it was not the complete genocide that the enemies of the Cherokee were hoping for. There are a variety of reasons for this, one being the resilience of the Cherokee as a people, resulting in a higher survival rate then was expected.
Another reason was that there was a subset of the Cherokee population who chose to make themselves, their wives, and their children unavailable for the indecencies and insults perpetrated by the U.S. Army and Georgia militia.
In our column today, we will discuss this particular subset of Cherokees and what became of their descendants.
As is the case today, some members of the community are more prepared for a major catastrophe than are others. Some members of the community are more trusting of the government than are others.
The descendants of Dragging Canoe and his followers tended to fall into the more prepared and less trusting category. To fully understand this population, it is necessary to understand a little more of Dragging Canoe, his leadership, and the inspiration his life and legacy continue to provide to our people.
The first step in this understanding is to remember that Dragging Canoe’s most famous speech, delivered at Sycamore Shoals in 1775, was not directed at the colonial representatives, but rather toward the Cherokee leaders he perceived as weak sellouts. This perception was not completely without merit as many of the chiefs were being bribed and plied with alcohol by the settler representatives in a bid to make them more willing to sell off Cherokee lands and rights. The strategy worked then, and it continues today.
The strength of Dragging Canoe’s determination to defend Cherokee interests at any cost led to a division in Cherokee governance that also continues to this day.
After the Sycamore Shoals speech, Dragging Canoe founded new Cherokee towns along Chickamauga Creek, along what is now the Georgia/Tennessee line in the Chattanooga area. The “Chickamaugas,” as they came to be known, struck both fear and dread in the hearts of the bandits and land speculators encroaching on Cherokee lands.
The reason for this was twofold, one being the reputation of Chickamauga warriors on the battlefield. Another reason was the fact that many Chickamaugas were educated mixed-bloods, fluent in English and able to travel freely in both settler communities and in Indian Country. This enabled them to gain valuable intelligence for their war effort.
The Chickamauga continued their war until it became clear that the war was unwinnable.
At this point the Chickamauga and their descendants took their education and experience to the fields of business and politics. But they aggressively maintained a tradition of distrust towards the U.S. government as well as certain elements within the Cherokee leadership. (It is important to remember here the old adage, “politics is war without bloodshed.”)
A few decades later — as the all-out assault on the Cherokee that culminated in the Indian Removal Act turned into a juggernaut — the Chickamauga descendants were better prepared to resist, thanks to their tradition of self-reliance and resistance.
Thus they were, in many cases, able to sidestep the removal by blending in and camouflaging their identity in order to survive. But, they never forgot who they were. While those who moved west, it is said, “forgot their clans, forgot the sacred fire” until the arrival of Redbird Smith in the 1880s, these “remainers” never forgot. They kept the fire alive in their hearts.
Through the remainder of the 19th century, and the early 20th century, this community survived by staying close and quiet. Toward the middle of the 20th century, as politics became less deadly, the community began to move toward a more organized structure as the Georgia Tribe of Eastern Cherokee — a state recognized Indian tribe under OCGA 44-12-300.
The statement made by Dragging Canoe all those years ago remains true today. There are still many who will seek to compromise the rights and the birthright of different Cherokee communities for their own selfish interests. But we will not.
The sacrifices of our ancestors, made to ensure our survival in the homeland of our forebears, continue to inspire and strengthen us. We have, and will continue to, advance and defend our identity and our birthright as a Cherokee community within the old homeland of the Cherokee. We are, and will remain, the children of Selu, the People of the Original Fire. A-WANINSKI